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The Alternate Lavender Isle: Guest Charles EP Murphy

Marooned guest: Charles EP Murphy

There's something strangely familiar about this place. Does it have a supervillain lair?

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

This time, our marooned guest is one with an encyclopaedic knowledge of all things comic-related. I really don’t need to say any more to allow regular readers of the SLP forum to know who I’m talking about.

It is, of course, Charles EP Murphy, editor of the anthology Comics of Infinite Earths and author of Chamberlain Resigns from SLP and Simon and Sir Gawain from SFP.

Welcome to the isolation of the Lavender Isle. What’s the first AH book you’ve chosen?

Gods of Manhattan, by Al Ewing.

In the United Socialist States of America, in the steam city of Manhattan, the superhuman paragon Doc Thunder, the sword-wielding ghost-man El Sombra, and the grim gun-blasting Blood Spider are drawn into the machinations of Nazi agents and lurking mad science!

This is the second part of a trilogy in a work-for-hire shared steampunk universe, which in practice would be mostly Jonathon Green doing Victorian adventure fiction and off in the corner was Ewing using it as an excuse to do pulp stories outside the Empire. First of the bunch was El Sombra, a psychotic masked swordsman killing steampunk-armoured Nazis in rural Mexico.

The third of Ewing’s trilogy, Pax Omega, is the best of the bunch – a time-hopping story about a conspiracy to prevent electricity being discovered and arrange a steampunk world with a closed time loop (which inspired a running gag in my Sexy Steampunk Girls farces) – and drags the steampunk genre to breaking point, but the second one is my favourite, just being so much gosh-darned fun! It’s full of superhero and pulp tropes that have been cut open, examined, and put back together, with some inspired twists and gags and a sense of play: Senator McCarthy was a supervillain tyrant who attempted a coup, the punks of steampunk wear patriotic pictures of McCarthy to shock their parents, Andy Warhol has created “dreampunk” art which is a replica of our own world, every bar has a sign saying Doc Thunder can drink for free, a thousand cheeky references.

Superhero fiction can be hard to do in prose, but Ewing made it look easy. I love Pax Omega, but sometimes you just want to see a nice guy with superpowers punch a scumbag.

Picture courtesy: Amazon

And the second AH book you’ve selected?

Axis of Andes (two books that are really one book) by DG Valdron.

“South America wasn’t a battleground in World War 2, but what if it was?” It’s a book of vast scope, covering the whole continent and reaching out to Germany and the US at times; it has a tremendously large cast from all over and all of them are messing things up for the rest of the cast; and an extremely complicated, extremely messy series of escalating events, with countries stumbling into disaster, civil wars, jungle campaigns with native armies, and cities under siege.

Two-thirds of the way in, there’s a sharp, genuinely unexpected twist that changes the very nature of what story we thought we were reading. The wider Axis and Allies are cautiously backing one nation or another, but the bulk of the fighting is by South Americans and the story remains entirely based on what the South Americans want to achieve and what they lose. And many of them lose a lot as the continent trips into Hell.

Valdron’s tome is also the sort of book that only exists in the online small press. It has sections of pure historical fact told in a sardonic narrative tone, god’s-eye-view descriptions of alternate events, and various prose vignettes of the characters (historical and fictional) down in the dirt, where someone you rooted for at one point is the antagonist in another – all in service of an alternate history that wouldn’t be ‘commercial’. It wouldn’t exist in a timeline without the Internet shaping out the way it has, but in this timeline, Axis of Andes exists.

Picture courtesy Amazon.

Moving on to your third book. What is it?

The Man in the High Castle, by Philip K Dick.

We can argue (and people have) about the historical inaccuracies and implausibilities (though these would have been less clear at the time Dick wrote it), and the way Imperial Japan gets to be the ‘softer’ dictatorship does get uncomfortable when we know of the atrocities it did to conquered people.

However, the story still shines as a story. This is a world where horror won, where everything is grubby and grey, where everyone in America has to keep their head down and bottle it up and hope they’re not noticed. Even the Japanese overseers are worroed about what might be coming – and they’re right to be. It’s a world of small, scared people, and Dick writes that well.

It’s full of little details to build up this sad world, from the Japanese occupiers buying up American trinkets and half of them being backroom fakes, of the shadows of what the Nazis have done, of Churchill and the RAF and Long-Range Desert Group being reviled as horrific fanatics for never surrendering, of a man who obviously knows more than his daffy secretary saying that of course the Allies could never have possibly won and you should stop counter-factualing about it.

The book-within-a-book, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, is an inspiring idea (and one I’ve stolen more than once!), an alternate history book about the Allies winning but in a completely different way to how they really did. Because why would someone in a timeline in which Roosevelt die before his third term imagine that Roosevelt would have four terms? You can’t just decide to do more than two terms! The concept challenges ‘what we know’ even more than the average alternate history by reminding us that we can’t know what we don’t know.

Picture courtesy Amazon.

Can you talk about your fourth book?

Life’s Lottery, by Kim Newman.

There’s a few by Newman I could have chosen, but this one would be the best one if stranded on an island: it’s a choose-your-own-adventure book, so I’m really getting lots of smaller books that require re-reading.

YOU are Keith Marion, making choices starting from how you answer which TV character you like best in the playground, and continuing to make decisions as he goes through life – or doesn’t go through life, if you choose wrong. But what is the right choice? Newman, like life, doesn’t always play fair, as the morally correct decision can make Marion suffer more or you might face an extremely random death by accident or you might have to make a Hobson’s choice.

You might be a bank manager is a small domestic drama or you could be in an isolated cabin in a mountain in a murder mystery. The bad guys might win whatever you do.

Its big disturbing power as an AH story is just how different Marion, and the people around him, are going to end up because of your decisions: there isn’t a distinct, immutable Keith with a consistent moral code; there’s no permanent best friends; there’s no soul mate; there’s no one true career path; there’s no guarantee how he does in the eleven-plus. Everything we are, it says, is based on what happened to us and when it happened and what we did in response, any give point of divergence could make us unrecognisable to ourselves.

Picture courtesy Amazon.

And what about your fifth book?

Agent Lavender, by Tom Black and Jack Tindale.

The premise alone is catnip for a certain type of nerd: “What if the made conspiracy theory that Prime Minister Harold Wilson was a Soviet spy was actually true, and the 1970s Britain had to deal with finding out?”

Wilson goes on the run in the hope of making it to the USSR, who may not want him to actually get there, while the Government falls over and the worst people do a very English coup now they’ve been ‘proven right’.

It’s a heavily researched book that seems to have every political and media figure from the 1970s in it, plus youngers versions of people who’d later be figures, all grounding this very daft concept in the real world and how people might have really reacted, which is not always in a way you’d expect. It works as both a straightforward political/espionage thriller and a political nerd equivalent of Kim Newman’s fantasy-AH stories like Anno Dracula.

It also plays a blinder when John Stonehouse turns up: a Labour MP who really was a Communist bloc spy who went on the run after faking his death! Suddenly, you might find yourself looking at the premise again and wondering...!

It's a classic. Picture courtesy SLP.

Moving on from AH books, you’re allowed to take one OTL history book. What have you chosen?

Thrill-Power Overload, by David Bishop, though I’m going to cheat and say: “Thrill-Power Overload by David Bishop and Karl Stock” so that you have to give me the newer version with more chapters.

It is an in-depth look at the creation and life of the comic 2000AD over its lifetime, how the comic industry changed, all the grubby feuds and the glorious partnerships, the battles for creator’s rights, and the various inspirations for strips and what shaped them. Apparently Judge Dreed came this close to having an ex-girlfriend. It’s full of lots of pictures, too!

We’ve loaded you up with books, so you will have plenty to read. What about music? What piece of AH music would you like to have?

On the SLP forums, user JesterBL posted about what happens if Elvis Presley lived and threw out an idea of the King working with music producer Rick Rubin in the 1990s just as Johnny Cash did IOTL. I want to hear what that sounds like!

And your final allowed item is a luxury item. What will that be?

Stuck on a desert island? It’s got to be an ice cream freezer stocked with Cornettos and Magnums.

We’ve got you all supplied up for your stay on Lavender Isle. How well do you think you will cope?

I’m going to end up eating the books in a demented frenzy.

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